Three Super Survivors
Who could be called the master survivors in Kerala's contemporary politics? Three names top my list. The first place goes posthumously to K Karunakaran, one of Kerala's craftiest political survivors, at least until he reached his autumn. Look at the grievous charges and challenges the irrepressible 'leader' faced in his seven decade-long and checkered political life; Thattil Estate murder case, Emergency excesses, including the gruesome custodial death of Rajan, perjury charges, Palmolein import scam, ISRO espionage case, naked nepotism, and fierce factional hostility from within his party. Although he did suffer in various degrees in connection with all these setbacks, Karunakaran always proved himself a survivor, re-emerging from each of them to become Kerala's most powerful politician for a long time.
Second on my survivor list is Pinarayi Vijayan. The Marxist strongman was catapulted to the limelight as one of the most tormented victims of police torture during the Emergency. Yet, it took twenty years more for him to occupy a position of power as he joined the 1996 Nayanar ministry. He stepped down within two years only to take over as the powerful party secretary where he remained for a record 17 years. Though he was formidable inside the party, those two decades saw Vijayan not just being embroiled in the sensational Lavalin scam - the first-ever corruption case faced by a CPI(M) secretary- but also was seen and portrayed as the evil incarnate of Kerala politics. Sections of media, the middle class, and also rival faction in the party made him appear the fountain head of all that was wrong. Fitting in a perfect popular culture binary, Pinarayi was the Mr. Vice placed in contrast to V S Achuthanandan, the Mr. Virtue similar to the earlier stereotypes related to AK Antony and Karunakaran. Pinarayi on his own added extra spice to his dark image trope; he hardly smiled, kept off media, even rebuked them and often plainly abused political opponents.
But even when everyone loved to hate him outside, Pinarayi kept asserting his complete dominance inside the party, pulverising his rivals led by VS despite the latter's huge popularity. From 2016 when he became Chief Minister, Pinarayi emerged Kerala's most powerful leader. Today he is respected by even critics for his 'managerial efficiency' and is unquestioned in the party - even in the Politburo as the head of CPI(M)'s only government- a clout even titans like EMS, Nayanar or Jyoti Basu never enjoyed. He also created history by leading LDF to victory for the second time in a row and also becoming Kerala's first Communist to be elected as Chief Minister consecutively.
Who is the next Comeback Kid? No doubt it is Muslim League's man of all seasons- PK Kunhalikkutty. Rising like a meteor in Kerala politics since his debut as Malappuram's Municipal chairman in 1980, he has remained for three decades the biggest power center in his party as a seven time MLA, three time minister and an MP once. Thangal family's conscience keeper, he made Congress fully dependent on League, brokered power with both the UDF and LDF, and supped and sparred with even the militant Muslim wings, as per his convenience.
The early 1990s saw the demolition of Babri Masjid throwing League into a dilemma whether to continue its Congress alliance. But League was not ready to forsake its ministerial berths in the UDF government. This made League's national president Sulaiman Sait walk out and form a new party. With Sait leaving, taking along AP Abubaker and UA Beeran, the organization was left with only a few seniors and it soon fell into the hands of the new generation. This was when Kunhalikkutty began to surge ahead as the League's most powerful man.
In 1991, Karunakaran and Kunhalikkutty -politicians more practical than ideological- brokered the disastrous Congress-League-BJP ('koleebi') deal in Beypore and Vadakara. But Kunhalikkutty's biggest political and personal crisis came in 1997 with the outbreak of the sensational sexual harassment charges dubbed as the 'ice cream parlour case'. No leader until then in Kerala had ever faced the kind of grievous charges raised in that case against Kunhalikkutty and it was generally presumed it would lead to his political funeral. Egged on by his rivals inside the League too, the case haunted Kunhalikutty for more than two decades with a persistent Achuthanandan leading a protracted legal fight not to let the case be dismissed. But Kunhalikkutty was to prove the survivor he was. Critics accused the Nayanar government of 2001 of trying to bury the case through a clandestine network of Kunhalikkutty, Nayanar, and Pinarayi, then party secretary. This added fuel to the factional fire inside CPI(M) as Achuthanandan had tried to kick this up. It was also the time when the CPI(M) and League under Pinarayi and Kunhalikutty had moved for an electoral alliance in the Local Body election of 2000 which was also thwarted by VS. The Central leadership even censured Pinarayi on this for flouting party policy. It was a forerunner of a move to induct IUML in LDF as the former was tired of sitting in opposition and CPI(M) knew UDF would crash without them.
Kunhalikkutty's next big blow came in 2006 elections when he was defeated for the first time at his citadel, Kuttippuram, by KT Jaleel, then a young League dissident backed by CPI(M). League's pathetic show against the LDF in other bastions too led to an uprising against Kunhalikutty inside the League. Right from the ice cream case, Kunhalikkutty had faced some opposition from a section led by M K Muneer and ET Muhammed Basheer. The case was exposed first by Indiavision tv channel owned by Muneer. Kunhalikutty was also accused of having kept his potential rivals like E Ahamed and Basheer away from Kerala by giving them parliamentary positions. The electoral setback of 2006 helped his detractors rise again and push him out of Kerala to take up as party's national secretary. Kunhalikkutty's patron, Thangal passed away in 2009 which was another reversal. But, League's own weaknesses drove it back to the master operator who was brought back by the 2011 elections after which he was a minister again in the Oommen Chandy government with all his old authority reinstated. His open and oblique links with various other Muslim outfits like the Welfare party and SDPI too proved helpful.
Today Kunhalikkutty is caught up in another major challenge in his life and career. The AR Nagar Bank scam in which his son is accused to be involved, the financial irregularities inside Chandrika newspaper, and the worst - his first-ever differences with a member of the Thangal family have come as big blows. Some of these being investigated by the Enforcement Directorate are pursued vigorously by Kunhalikkuty's bete noire, KT Jaleel and also by opponents in the League. But at a time when his problems began to appear too daunting to Kunhalikkutty, history appears to be repeating. Pooh-poohing his ally Jaleel, Pinarayi has come out against ED probing the co-operative bank scam. Will the super survivor at 70 get into his act again? Let's wait and watch.